Biogas is a valuable resource for improving the socio-economic status of millions of Kenyans but which remains completely untapped. This article attempts to show that biogas has enormous potential because it can be generated cheaply from locally available materials; the skill required is simple; there is a large population of energetic unemployed but trainable youths for biogas digester construction; the market for biogas is inexhaustible, and the benefits to individual clients and the country are numerous.
Although most of our biogas is generated from animal dung and related waste, it is known that biogas can also be generated from sewage systems and many other vegetable matter. Therefore in most parts of Kenya, there is bound to be suitable raw materials for biogas generation.
The market for biogas exists in urban and rural areas. The middle and low income population in urban areas currently relies on charcoal for cooking and electricity for lighting. Both these energy sources are extremely expensive and charcoal has negative effects on the environment and on health. Most of the rural population relies mainly on firewood for cooking and paraffin for lighting.
Firewood dependence is a major cause of destruction of water towers and the resultant negative effects on climate. At over Sh60 per litter, paraffin has become too costly for most of the rural poor. Firewood, paraffin and charcoal are also health hazards. The sizeable middle income population which currently relies on imported gas and charcoal for cooking is finding both too expensive.
Electricity is tolerable for lighting but too expensive for cooking. Although solar lighting is cheap, the initial capital outlay is high because it uses imported materials. This analysis of the energy situation in the country leaves a huge gap of unmet need for both cooking and lighting for which only biogas seems to offer a viable solution.
It has been proved beyond doubt that biogas works. There already exist a number of models of biogas digesters that work. The skill for construction of digesters is simple and can easily be transferred to groups of youths by one master technician. Such groups of youth can work in teams to construct biogas digesters in many parts of the country, thus helping solve the serious youth unemployment problem.
Furthermore, biogas development is more than energy generation. For a small scale farmer it is an important component in the cycle of an organized system of utilizing interrelated resources on the farm to maximize production and improve efficiency and the quality of life for the family. Such resources include soil, water and sunshine for fodder growing; farm animals which feed on the fodder crops, and in turn produce dung used to generate biogas and organic manure; and the manure which is used to improve the quality of fodder and other crops. And the cycle continues, making the farmer self sustaining in food production and energy needs but also increasing cash incomes through improved yields. It is also possible for the farmer to sell excess biogas to neighours and even the national energy grid.
Lastly, experts assure us that biogas generation prevents release of harmful gases into the environment thus reducing chances of global warming and other chemical pollution effects. Biogas digesters kill all the nasty smell around the zero grazing units and destroy the latrine and sewage smell, improving the standard of hygiene in the homes and community. The chances of biogas exploding are also minimal since it is not pressurized.
Thus we can conclude that in terms of cost, suitability to the needs of the majority of Kenyans, and benefits, biogas stands out as the best and most viable energy option. One wonders why it is so grossly underutilised!
(Alice Owano is an education and development specialist with a keen interest in the environment)